Positive Legal Education: Flourishing Law Students and Thriving Law Schools

56 Pages Posted: 7 Mar 2017 Last revised: 25 Mar 2017

Debra S. Austin

University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Date Written: March 6, 2017

Abstract

There is a wellbeing crisis in the legal field and legal education may be the catalyst. Law students are the most dissatisfied, demoralized, and depressed of graduate student populations. The Socratic method is infamous for inducing anxiety in law students and law school grades are often determined by a single final exam at the end of a grueling semester. Law students cite competition, grades, and workload as major stressors, and if legal educators ignore their harmful impact, it will likely suppress learning and fuel illness.

Law students start law school with strong mental health and high life satisfaction measures, and within the first year of law school experience a significant increase in anxiety and depression. The impairment in wellbeing continues beyond the first year of law school and into legal practice. A recent study surveyed 12,825 lawyers and discovered that 23% of licensed, employed attorneys identify as problem drinkers, 28% experience depression, and 19% suffer from anxiety. Lawyers rank 4th in suicides among professionals and many recent lawyer suicides are linked to depression. Something bad is happening to law students and the wellbeing crisis bleeds into legal practice.

Lawyers are leaders in business, government, and the legal system, possessing the power to drive social progress, but they are not living up to that responsibility. Law school socializes students to extreme competition and punishing levels of stress which compromise both wellbeing and cognitive capacity. Lawyers shape policy, and when they are educated to believe that competitive enterprises are the most productive, they promote replicating them throughout society. Neuroscience and Positive Psychology research has established that when it comes to solving problems, cooperative endeavors outperform competitive initiatives. The American love affair with competition stifles creativity, hinders innovation, and thwarts social progress. Competition promotes antagonistic behavior, a combative mentality, and the eternal cycle of the never-ending feud, where all energies are spent on the battle with the opposition, and problems are rarely improved or solved. Progress toward a more equitable society will be enhanced when legal education entrepreneurs train lawyer leaders to be divergent thinkers whose focus is on problem-solving.

This article proposes a new field of inquiry called Positive Legal Education that leverages research findings from Positive Psychology, neuroscience, and Positive Education to inspire innovation in legal education and curate a culture of wellbeing in the legal field. Section II of this Article describes the negative impact legal education has on law student wellbeing. Section III explains neuroscience research on habit learning, knowledge acquisition, and the impact of stress on cognition. Section IV details the five Positive Psychology elements required to achieve wellbeing. Section V demonstrates how wellbeing initiatives have improved academic performance and thriving in secondary and college education. Section VI illustrates how law student knowledge-base, legal skill acquisition, and professional identity development can be enhanced with discipline-specific growth mindset and self-efficacy training, and the shift from the grade curve to competency-based grading. Section VII depicts how lawyers can become transformational leaders. Section VIII covers four practices lawyers can undertake to deal with the harmful effects of stress. The article concludes with recommendations for scholars and legal education entrepreneurs who want to transform legal education.

Suggested Citation

Austin, Debra S., Positive Legal Education: Flourishing Law Students and Thriving Law Schools (March 6, 2017). 77 Md. L. Rev. (Forthcoming); U Denver Legal Studies Research Paper No. 17-06. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2928329

Debra S. Austin (Contact Author)

University of Denver Sturm College of Law ( email )

2255 E. Evans Avenue
Denver, CO 80208
United States

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